Describing Wine 101 (AKA "Creamed Corn!)

Any Joe or Jane can Google search how to describe wine. You can find out which fruit (from citrus to tropical) describes your white wine. And what berries (blueberry to raspberry) you may discern in your reds. Wine writers are always looking for new ways to describe “the nose” because, well frankly, it can get pretty dull reading the same thing over and over and over…

A fellow wine blogger brought this up to me over the weekend. His site, “Risque Sommelier…Just a little bit gay” has way more fun in this department than I can even dream of. But he still has to come up with riskier ways to describe the grape.

For me, I prefer to not read the back of the bottle or tasting notes to cheat. I like to throw out words never used before.
When my friend from south Africa was offended when I said that a particular wine from her home smelled like old shoe or dog paw, the sommelier in attendance, a friend and fan, was thankfully on hand to agree with me.

When tasting 14 Syrahs blind with local winemakers and our host called out “Corn” as soon as she took her whiff I couldn’t help but add, “Oh no, it’s Creamed Corn”. And you know what? She agreed with me.

Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t make this stuff up just to entertain. This is what I really smell. It’s a gift. You have to work on it.

I watched a wine DVD recently where the sommelier offered a wide selection of wine glasses available for the guests to sniff – filled with the usual suspects such as the fruits and berries described above – to help them identify what they were smelling and tasting. She said that smelling wine brings up certain memories of smells. I liked the memory part, that made sense to me. But if I stick my nose into a glass filled with pomegranate seeds, and then stick my nose into my wine glass…I’m stuck with those seeds. I don’t think that’s quite it.

There is a great book, somewhere down the right side of this page, that has scents captured in vials. One book for red, one for white, a master book, and the one I really want with all of the oaks. You can click on it here and go to his site. Then hold your mouse over the oak book and you’ll magnify colors from green to gold to blackened. I can appreciate that and it’s sold as a learning tool.

But back to the idea of using memories. Your unique memories do color what you pick up when you smell and taste wine…sidewalk gum, bicycle seat, gym locker, Pez candy, rainy blacktop, Hope chests. Are you getting it? Why would I describe what I smell the way you smell? I love creamed corn, and, I drank every golden drop of it from my wine glass.


  1. Mike says


    A retired colleague of mine, Adrienne Lehrer, wrote an important book about the meaning of words (lexical semantics) some years ago and she’s just come out with a second edition of the book: “Wine and Conversation”.

    I haven’t read the second edition, and my memory of the first is now vague, but it was a really interesting read. (Keep in mind I’m a linguist so I can’t vouch for the rest of you!) In any case, the really interesting point that I remember was that even though wine cognoscenti use all sorts of words to describe wine that seem to make little sense to the rest of us, Adrienne’s research (in Napa, lots of tastings, sounded like really fun work!) showed that among the specialists, the words have a constant meanings. So, for example, if all the specialists say some wine is “round”, that may make no sense to naifs like me, but they all agree what a round wine tastes like.

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